The perils of Florentia Sale

Gripping adventure in "A Journal of the Disasters of the Afghan War : 1841-42"

Lady Florentia Sale and her party were herded from one Afghan fortress to another. Illustration by C L Doughty

Lady Florentia Sale and her party were herded from one Afghan fortress to another. Illustration by C L Doughty

Mike Selby

‘Fighting’ Bob Sale was a legend in the British Army. He fought side-by-side in the trenches with his men; often leading charges when his rank called for him to remain in the rear. When a regiment threatened to mutiny in Burma (1821), he loaded the mutineers’ muskets with blanks, and ordered them to shoot him.  After this bizarre command, he noticed none of the disgruntled soldiers had ‘accidentally’ slipped a an actual bullet in.  Sale shook his head, stating “It’s not my fault if you don’t shoot at me!”

And although he was promoted to the rank of Major General, and knighted by the Royal Family, all his accomplishments were completely out-shadowed by his wife.

Florentia Sale married her husband in 1809, giving him eight children (she had delivered 12, but four died during birth), and was now ready to enjoy her twilight years in the comfort of Afghanistan.  In the spring of 1840 she arrived in Kabul with her oldest daughter, joining her husband for a life of British luxury. Not only would they live on one of the finest estates, but they would do so with no less than 40 servants.

Then it all went so horribly wrong.

The First Anglo-Afghan War broke out, causing the British to make one mistake after the other. After a series of disastrous decisions, the only option left was to retreat to the safety of Jalalabad.  4,500 British troops and 12,000 civilians all left Kabul on foot. No one made it. Those who didn’t freeze to death were either shot, stabbed, or starved. The only survivors were a handful of women and children, who were captured and taken to a prison camp. Among this group was Florentia Sale, her daughter, and corpse of her daughter’s husband.

At the camp, Sale confronted their captor General Akbar Khan, demanding a Christian burial for her son-in-law. Khan, an Afghani prince as well as a Sunni Muslim, granted her request (the only one granted during the entire war). Sale also fearlessly berated her Afghani guards for the poor conditions of the prison camp.   After one particular “dressing down” she gave General Khan, he commented to a guard that “he know understands why Europeans have but one wife.”

It should be noted Sale did all this while having a bullet lodged in her shoulder and one in her wrist. She cut the one in her wrist out, and simply left the one in her shoulder alone.

Sale and her fellow prisoners were kept for nine months while the British tried to negotiate for their release. Never one for passivity, Sale snuck letters to the negotiators, which found their way back to England. These letters were read in parliament, and published in newspapers. Soon, ‘Lady Sale’ was all anyone was talking about.

While this was due to her having survived one of the largest wartime massacres in history, it also was because of Sale’s writing ability.  Her letters, describing her day-to-day imprisonment (frostbite, lice, earthquakes), read like a Jane Austen novel.

Newspaper headlines were soon dominated with references to “Heroine of Cabul,” “The Lioness Rampant,” “Grenadier in Petticoats,” and “The Victorian Boadecia.”

But her letters were just a small taste. The newspapers also reported that Sale was keeping a lengthy diary of her captivity, and that “if she escapes she will publish everything.”  This became one of the most anticipating publications of the 19th century.

After nine months, the Afghanis were moving the prisoners to a different camp when news of British Forces in the area caused  most of the guards to flee. Sale picked up a musket, and led the survivors towards the approaching forces. It was a column led by her husband, who hopped off his horse and ran towards her. Sale burst into tears, the first time her husband had ever seen her cry.

“A Journal of the Disasters of the Afghan War : 1841-42” appeared on the shelves in 1843. As expected, it was a bestseller and “a publishing phenomenon.”  Her exploits soon appeared in plays, novels, and Australia named a town after her.

Today, her original diary, “written on tattered sheaves of cheap paper,” can be viewed at the British Library.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library